On Wednesday, with the help of a little technology, my friend Richard and I made a virtual pilgrimage from Croyde Bay in Devon, around (the contrarily named) Baggy Point and with the air clear and bright over the sea, we were able to see out to Lundy Island, that finger of granite in the Atlantic that points up towards Wales. The island features in the Shipping Forecast, that great meteorological mantra whose salty place names are poetry to the English ear. Wishing ourselves amongst the puffins and other sea birds on Lundy, we talked of Robert Fitzroy whose introduction of storm warnings in the mid-19th century saved many thousands of lives around the coastal waters of the British Isles. And as we headed onwards along the cliff top path our conversation turned to another, more southerly island, and a pilgrimage Richard had made there more than a decade ago.
Robben Island is the place that Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years’ imprisonment; convicted for opposing the system of apartheid that white settlers imposed on people of colour in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s. Richard told me that he had learned much on his trip to Robben Island, not least that prisoners were often subjected to the gross punishment of being buried up to their necks in the earth and left overnight, so that the insects and snakes might make a meal of them. After his release in 1990, Mandela described how much he had learned about human behaviour during his incarceration: how some guards at the prison believed that extreme cruelty towards inmates was the only way to ensure their subjugation; while other guards acted fairly towards the prisoners, believing that in time they might come to be the rulers, and that they, the guards might in turn need their compassion.
These two positions, as set out by Mandela neatly define what makes us civilised: how we behave with regard to the consequences to others and to ourselves. Richard also talked about a visit he had made to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, an event which profoundly affected him and which he came to think of in terms of a pilgrimage. On that November day in 1997, with snow on the ground, there were few other visitors and as the afternoon wore on, with a big winter sun sliding down beyond the horizon, only Richard and his female colleague remained. As darkness fell, they were the last two people to walk out to the road; passing under the tower, the place where trains had once arrived carrying people to their death. This was, he said, the most profound moment in his life, and it transformed his understanding of the human race. “The moment you consider another human being to be inferior, in whatever way, it permits or encourages a level of inhumanity.” He said that while as a youth he had understood the horror of the Holocaust, it was not until that moment in which he stood at the exit to the camp that he felt at the most visceral level what this episode of human cruelty really meant.
Over a million people were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau; most were Jews, some were Roma, others Soviet prisoners of war. Many were young children. It is thought that 7,000 Nazi personnel worked there at one time or another, so we’re not talking of the actions of a small handful of psychopaths, but thousands of otherwise ordinary people who came to work every day to commit acts of atrocity against other human beings; actions that had been planned and organised to maximise the efficiency with which mass murder could be committed. In part, what enabled them to do this was that they did not have, could not have had, a sense of shared humanity with their victims; and added to this, they were able to act without consequence. Only a few hundred officials were ever prosecuted after the war, the others going on to live presumably normal lives.
In part what is so chilling about both the action of the guards at Robben Island and Auschwitz is that, finding ourselves in the same circumstances, it is just possible that any one of us might act as they did, or at the very least, simply turn away from the awful truth. (Post-WWII propaganda has swelled the number of European ‘resistance fighters’ to incredible levels, but in reality very few ordinary citizens were brave enough to act against the powerful fascist machine.) By contrast, through his example, Nelson Mandela gave us hope that we too might aspire to be the best that a human being can be.
Speaking of his time on Robben Island, Mandela said that he was happy to have been associated with such a historic place, side-stepping the obvious fact that it was only through association with him (and his fellow prisoners from the Rivonia Trial) that it had become historic. Of his time as President of South Africa, he said “If you are a nation builder, it doesn’t pay to be angry. If you are angry because you want to change your country from one which is reactionary, to one which is progressive… no useful purpose is served by destroying or by being angry…. what must dominate you is the idea of serving all [the people].” He told how it felt to wake up each day knowing that he was doing something progressive for his people; that would contribute to solving their problems, and how by contrast, “If you think only of yourself, you cannot go further forward.”
As Richard and I looped back inland to Croyde Bay and to our starting point two hours earlier, though our conversation had been sombre at times, we were cheered to have completed our first ‘virtual pilgrimage’ in this 2020 Year of Pilgrimage, Year of Cathedrals. With Richard in Hertfordshire and me in Suffolk, thanks to the help of Facetime, TomTom, an Ordnance Survey map of Devon, and some shared photographs, we were able to share a walk along the coast and look out towards the island of Lundy. As is the way on pilgrimage, we talked of many things, including family and friends and the sheer beauty of the landscape. It was a truly glorious afternoon.
My forthcoming book – We are Pilgrims -Journeys in Search of Ourselves – will be published in the UK in early April by Hurst.